Fianna Fail’s fresh respect for Seanad is all about rebuilding a discredited party
In 1987, the Progressive Democrats promised that they would “terminate” the Seanad. Just one year later, Michael McDowell proclaimed that the PDs could either be “radical or redundant”. Prophetic words indeed.
In government, the PDs proved to be anything but radical. The Seanad was left untouched and the party, under the leadership first of Mary Harney and then Mr McDowell, provided full and active support to the disastrous policies of Bertie Ahern. The verdict of the electorate in 2007 was unsurprising – the PDs and Mr McDowell were indeed made redundant, just as he had foretold.
Despite his central role in the destruction of our economy and his championing of the policies of light touch regulation, Mr McDowell has now decided to emerge from his enforced exile to take his place in the full glare of the media spotlight. His strategy is clear: to present himself – a former Tanaiste, Attorney General and leader of the PDs – as some kind of political outsider.
As a former senator myself, I argued for reform. With other senators, I authored a comprehensive report which set out a road map on how that reform could take place. Like all the other reports on Seanad reform, it gathered dust while Mr McDowell’s government over 14 years refused to budge. Now he presents himself as the man who is best-placed to oppose the abolition of the Seanad, which he wanted up until recently. You couldn’t make it up.
Mr McDowell is on record as describing the Seanad as “a cross between a political convalescent home and a creche”. Seanad Eireann, he has acknowledged, has been “largely used as an ante room to Dail Eireann, to house would-be newcomers, temporary absentees, and as a consolation prize for those who had lost their seats”. His words, not mine.
To be fair, Michael McDowell is not alone in his flip-flopping antics. Only one conclusion can be drawn from the decision of Micheal Martin to first support the Seanad’s abolition and to now oppose it. The attempt to build ‘Fianna Fail Nua’ has failed. His latest stance shows up very strongly that new Fianna Fail looks very like old Fianna Fail in its approach to politics.
His party’s manifesto of 2011 laid out, in the starkest terms, why the Seanad should be abolished: “Much of the rationale for the inclusion of the Seanad in Bunreacht na hEireann has ceased to be relevant over time. Serious questions must be asked about the continued role of an entity which is still struggling to justify its existence after three-quarters of a century.
“It must be stressed that during the last decade, the Seanad did not play a substantive role in challenging unsustainable policies. While its debates are frequently more thoughtful than those in the Dail, this suggests the need to reform the Dail rather than the retention of the Seanad. It is important to note that second chambers are not an essential part of parliamentary democracy.”
But Mr Martin has now decided that he needs the Seanad to help rebuild his party and has cast aside his previous commitments. It’s classic old Fianna Fail – worthy of Bertie Ahern himself.
Unlike Mr McDowell, Fianna Fail or Sinn Fein, this Government is doing exactly what it said it would do. It is offering the people of Ireland a simple choice: to abolish or keep the Seanad. Compared to other small countries – Denmark, Finland, Norway and New Zealand – we have too many politicians. We do need a radical rethink on how government and parliament function and politicians cannot pretend that it is business as usual, given the collapse of this country. Checks and balances need to be installed within our system. The establishment of an independent fiscal council and the enactment of fiscal responsibility are examples of this. But do we need two houses of parliament in a post-crisis Ireland? I don’t think so.
I do agree with Mr McDowell and Mr Martin on one thing – the Dail does need reform. Other small countries have shown that it is perfectly possible to build checks and balances into a single-chamber parliament. Dail reform is crucial and not some added extra. A radical overhaul of the committee system will make it more independent. A new legislative system will allow for greater, closer scrutiny of key legislation.
The Dail is far from perfect, but this Government is offering reforms that can truly be called radical. The Dail is also democratic – because it was elected by the people. It is the people who will decide whether they want to take the serious step of abolishing the Seanad, or retaining a house that even its defenders admit is “redundant”.
That’s the great thing about democracy – it’s the people who decide. Not the political insiders.